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Barbara Ker-Seymer - Muses & The Beau Monde

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

The sharply radical portraitist of a "new English avant-garde."

Barbara Marcia Ker-Seymer, born in Kensington 20 January 1905, was a British photographer and society figure.

`Barbara Ker-Seymer by Humphrey Spender, 1930s

After leaving the Chelsea School of Art, a meeting with society photographer Olivia Wyndham inspired Ker-Seymer to teach herself photography. Her work eschewed artifice, instead aiming at producing naturalistic images, with her sitters relaxed rather than posed, as though they were 'just sitting around'.

These subjects included Nancy Cunard, Raymond Mortimer, Frederick Ashton, Edward Burra, Gertrude Stein and Julia Strachey.

She opened her London studio -above Asprey the jewellers, costing 30 shillings- in 1931. She painted the walls black, installed a radiogram (a piece of furniture that combined a radio and record player) and hung paintings by Sophie Fedorovitch and her friend, surrealist artist John Banting.

Photograph of two women and three men including Barbara Ker-Seymer and John Banting

Adventurous, innovative and energetic, Ker-Seymer became a sharply radical portraitist of a new English avant-garde.

She went on to produce for Harper's Bazaar the photographic series 'Footprints in the Sand' about up-and-coming writers; one of her sitters was Evelyn Waugh.

Here is Barbara Ker-Seymer shot (left) of Jean Cocteau from the April 1932 Issue of Harpers Bazaar.

She rejected all the artifices of studio photography - the retoucher's brush, the soft focus lens - and placed her sitters against backgrounds of leather, shiny metal and rough animal skins, asking them 'not to pose, but to behave as they would if they were just sitting around'.

"Strolling along the beach at Toulon in the Thirties, Barbara Ker-Seymer stopped to take a photograph of a young man. She pictured him from above, splayed on the sand, angular, elegant, his skin gleaming in the strong southern light. In the Riviera sunshine, Ker-Seymer recorded the passing of a brilliant Bohemia."

- The Independant

Photograph album, Toulon [August] 1931

She travelled to Toulon to photograph Jean Cocteau and was intrigued and entranced by a new demi-monde of beachlife and bars, opium and sailors. 'Everyone bought a sailor's costume,' she remembered 'including me.' On the pages of her snapshot album, she is a small, sleek and vivacious figure in a matelot's jersey, photographing, drinking, lounging, observing.

When the Second World War began, Ker-Seymer's experiments in photography stopped. Friends dispersed and the avant-garde collapsed. Changes in public attitudes and the shortage of photographic supplies destroyed Ker-Seymer's markets. Though she worked for a time in a film studio, she spent most of the war living in the remote English countryside.

With her negatives abandoned during the war, the only surviving evidence of Ker-Seymer's career in photography is a small collection of battered prints and a snapshot album. Nevertheless, as contemporary historians began to rediscover the British photography of the Twenties and Thirties her work was much in demand.


Reading Recommendations & Content Considerations

The Tate have seven photograph albums available online, compiled by Barbara Ker-Seymer from 1928 to 1944. The albums contain photographs of Ker-Seymer, various locations in England and France, and her friends - including many notable figures of the period. The majority of the photographs were taken by Ker-Seymer.


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